“No one wants to pass this way unnoticed – they really don’t, even in a negative way.” Acclaimed photographer Harry Benson discusses Bobby Kennedy, The Beatles, and the downside of fame.
Zan Boag: Your shots of actors, musicians and heads of state tend to attract the most attention, but you have also photographed protests and conflicts over the years – including a march with Martin Luther King, IRA members, and many other significant people and events. Do you see yourself as a historian of sorts?
Harry Benson: I wasn’t a rock’n’roll photographer, but after you do The Beatles, who wants to do Hall and Oats? I did photograph The Stones, The Who, Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Amy Winehouse, and Michael Jackson, but music was only a part of my career. I was there with Martin Luther King being teargassed, and I was next to Bobby Kennedy when he was shot: that was something that I couldn’t fail at – I had to do it. I remember everything – instant recall… I was going to leave the hall the way I came in but there were too many people so the easiest way out was to follow Bobby out through the kitchen. I was about three yards behind him and then the screams came. If anything has lived with me it’s that scream, the screaming. It wasn’t that long after Dallas [when JFK was assassinated]. I have instant recall… even smells, it stays with you. This is what I came in the business for – it was to not fail… you owe it to history… you have to do it.
Ethel Kennedy after her husband Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated, 1968, by Harry Benson
To what extent is the image of celebrities, be they movie stars or world leaders, controlled? And what part does photography play – to reveal or conceal?
I photograph what I see. And what I see should inform. And I’ve never done any deals. I’ve never signed anything – sometimes when you’re doing a celebrity they will hand you a document which means that you haven’t got control of the pictures. And photographers and magazines go along with this. I’ve never, ever done that. In fact, I’ve walked away from them. I want to own my photographs, and that it’s what I saw. I’m not out to debunk people… I want information in the pictures. I have photographed every President since Eisenhower and I’ve never done any deals with them, like whether I’ll let them see them before I use them. No way! No way… the way it is now the subject thinks he can control it all.
Of all the people you have photographed, who has had the biggest effect on you?
It’s probably The Beatles. Because The Beatles meant I was going to America with them and that opened up Bobby Kennedy, the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, American Presidents, and I stayed in America – I didn’t go back to Fleet Street in London. But also characters like world chess champion Bobby Fischer. The reason he liked me was because I knew nothing about chess. Nothing. So he wanted to hear about The Jets, and sporting figures, like Ali and people like that. Bobby Fischer considered himself an athlete, he used to work out very hard and it wasn’t quite what you’d expect. And I’d say President Richard Nixon was another one: he let me get close, he let me into La Casa Pacifica (President Nixon’s home in San Clemente, California), not long after he was put out of office. And I remember he let me be with him for three or four days and when I said goodbye I said, “I know this isn’t the best time in your life,” and he said to me: “You’ve got to let professionals do their job.”
Some of your subjects – such as Richard Nixon and Michael Jackson – experienced both fame and infamy during their lives. Did this cause you – as it did others – to read more into your earlier photographs of them?
There comes a time when they enjoy it and they know exactly what you’re doing. With Nixon, he knew he was letting me in there for historic reasons, and he figured it might as well be me because I’d been on his campaign trail, I’d been around the world with him. Although I don’t get close with people. I don’t want anybody to phone me up and say, “Please don’t use that picture”. After I’ve been with someone I go back to the hotel room and if the phone rings, I never pick it up because I know what it could be. It could be, “Oh, Harry, that picture of me in the bubble bath, please don’t use it.” I’d have a problem because of my new best picture and my new best friend, who is not my friend. I’m photographing what I see and then it’s get out of Dodge as quick as you can.
From what you’ve seen, what is the downside to fame?
The downside is getting old. People remark on it right away.
And the loss of privacy?
They like it. They like the idea of them being hunted. If there are no paparazzi waiting for you outside the restaurant, that’s not good. That’s not a good sign, because it means that the PR, the publicist, told the media, told the photographers, and they didn’t come.
What do you think of everyone trying to grab their slice of fame? Has fame been devalued?
What we’ve got right now is not very many interesting people. You’ve got a lot of mush around about and you don’t really care if you photograph them or not. The only one I’d really like to photograph, and I haven’t, is Putin… People strive for it and they’ve got publicists who keep putting things in the paper and they give newspaper gossip columns money. You know when you read it that it’s a piece of shit. Some new movie star has a new movie that’s not that good and suddenly there’s publicity about him being out with a new girl – and it’s meaningless… I don’t lose any sleep about it. I know it’s shit, but so does everybody else.
Why do you think people seek fame, and is it worth chasing?
No one wants to pass this way unnoticed – they really don’t, even in a negative way. And you could say this is American culture – but it’s the same in Scotland, it’s the same everywhere. They want a knock on the door and they’re delighted and after living a lifetime, somebody’s here to take my photograph. People just don’t want to pass this way unnoticed. I’ve always got that going for me. Will they, or won’t they – and usually they will… There’s some people more difficult than others. Bobby Fischer was difficult, and so was Nixon. I’ve gone after people that have got a reputation for being difficult, because the pictures mean something – you get into their inner sanctum, you get into their bedroom. If I’m into the bedroom I’m really getting through. It’s a lot of fun. I don’t know what I would have done if I had to work for a living.
Well, what would you have done had you not gone along with The Beatles fifty years ago?
I was going to go to Africa. It was a year after the hooroo in Kenya, Uganda, Zanzibar – they all got their independence in ’63 and I was going back. I had all my shots and my phone goes – it was the night picture editor who said, “I want you to go to Paris in the morning with The Beatles and it will be for a few days.” And I tried to talk him out of it, because I was a serious journalist. I knew who The Beatles were. So, I go to Paris, but the night we arrived The Beatles played a gig at the Cinema Cyrano in Versailles before they opened in the Madeleine. Before The Beatles came on I went to my car for a piece of equipment. Coming back in The Beatles are singing “Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you, tomorrow I’ll…” and I thought, Jesus Christ, I’m on the right story. They were phenomenal, and it was in Paris where they broke out, where they broke the records, five in a row and that. And it meant that I was going to be in New York in two weeks – so that changed my life. It was in Paris that it was no longer a music story, it became a major news story. McCartney and Lennon were breaking out and writing these tunes and everyone wanted to get to them. It was a phenomenon. And you watched this Beatlemania happening – and I’m there. When I went to America, I’ll tell you a story: I took The Beatles to meet Cassius Clay – Muhammad Ali – who made them lie down, do this, “Who’s the most beautiful?”, “You are”, and after, when it was over John Lennon said to me, “you know, he made us look stupid, and it’s your fault Benson, he made us look like monkeys”. And The Beatles wouldn’t talk to me. But I didn’t care, because the following day I was off to Jamaica to photograph Ian Fleming because Dr. No had recently come out. I flew back to Miami and covered the fight – the Clay/Liston fight – and then I saw The Beatles back in London three months later and they’d forgotten all about it. Muhammad Ali was the champion of the world.
John Lennon, I have to say, was a great guy, not in the least bit show businessy, where Paul is, but not John… John is the one I miss. And it was comfortable. Sometimes people become uncomfortable when they become famous. When I photograph someone and then see them at a party I don’t go and talk to them because even though I’ve photographed them, I don’t know them. John was completely sincere, there was nothing phony about him, he was really a decent guy. And so was Bobby Fischer, and in a way I liked Nixon. It’s very hard to be critical of someone who has allowed you to do your job. That doesn’t mean that if they do something stupid I’m not going to… well, I’m going to photograph it! Which I have. But I’m not going out there to debunk anybody, because that would be wrong. You photograph what you see.
While you’ve been watching these celebrities as they rise and fall, you yourself have become famous for the photographs you’ve been taking. Has this changed you in any way?
I’m still the same. I’m upset because I could have done better. If you’re in a situation, you stay in it. You don’t back out of it, you take it to its fullest. And I think of things where I could have moved a little closer because I had a chance and I didn’t take it. But no, I don’t think of myself in any way as a celebrity – tell that to my dogs. They would answer you very quickly.
From issue #10 ‘fame’, you can purchase a copy of the magazine here.